Swimming to Soulsville: Take Me To the River ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 27, 2014)

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Maybe I’m just jaded, but there’s a sub genre of music doc that is becoming somewhat formulaic. “(Insert director and film title here) is the story of (insert name of venerable American recording studio here), located near the banks of (insert name of venerable American river here), which has given host to the likes of (insert impressive roll call of venerable American musicians here), frequently backed up by (insert aggregate nickname for venerable American session players) who have collectively given us the soundtrack of our lives.”

There’s no other way to say it: Martin Shore’s Take Me to the River is the story of the Stax recording studios, near the banks of the Mississippi in Memphis Tennessee, which has given host to the likes of Mavis Staples, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Isaac Hayes, Otis Clay and William Bell, frequently backed by house band Booker T. & the MGs, who have collectively given us the, erm, soundtrack of our lives.

That’s not to say that it isn’t a damn good soundtrack, especially for those of (ahem) a certain age, who grew up digging classic Stax A-sides like “Green Onions” by Booker T., “Walking the Dog” by Rufus Thomas, “Walk on By” by Isaac Hayes, “Private Number” by William Bell and Judy Clay, “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd, “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave, “Mr. Big Stuff” by Jean Knight, “Respect Yourself” by The Staple Singers, and…well, you get the gist.

Using archival footage and recollections by seminal Stax artists and producers, Shore traces the history of the label, from its founding in the early 60’s, through its occasionally stormy partnership with Atlantic Records, to its heyday as an independent label from 1968 to 1972 (he doesn’t dwell on the rough patches from the mid-70s through the early 1980s, which included bankruptcy and internal strife).

The good news is that Stax has enjoyed a second wind over the last decade (mostly as a reissue label). It is in the spirit of this revival that the director decided to frame the film by documenting the making of an inter-generational “duets” album that pairs up hip-hop artists like Snoop Dogg, Lil P-Nut, Al Kapone and Yo Gotti with Stax veterans.

This leads to some interesting moments; in my favorite scene, the great Bobby “Blue” Bland offers some grandfatherly advice about the music biz to the 11 year-old Lil P-Nut, as well as a “tough love” tutorial on how to inject his vocal phrasing with real soul. Mavis Staples really lights up the room with her wonderful spirit and “that” voice. Another music highlight is an impromptu jam session featuring the soft-spoken blues legend Charlie Musselwhite, proving age is not a factor when it comes to blowing a mean harp.

The best part about Shore’s film is that it admirably aspires to connect the dots between the R&B “Memphis sound” and the contemporary sub genres that have evolved from it (like hip-hop and neo-soul). In this sense, the older artists who appear in the film (vital and soulful as ever) are literally “living history”.

One also gets the poignant sense of a legacy passing on, especially in a segment showing students from an associated music school working with veteran Stax artists on one of the sessions. An important element of that legacy is the colorblind factor; from its earliest days to the present, this has been a music scene (based in the Deep South, mind you) that remained happily oblivious to the very concept of a color barrier. All that mattered was the music that came out of the box.

The need to preserve that legacy of spirit holds more import once it’s revealed that several of the older performers have passed since principal filming. One of those late legends, guitarist Charles “Skip” Pitts (who provided those iconic wah-wah licks on “Shaft”) embodies this gracious spirit when we see him praise a young student drummer. “Watch this fellow,” Pitts gushes like a proud dad, “He’s already plugged in. Nobody had to tell him how to do nothing.” He gives the teenager a fist bump, adding “Love you, man. Hope you like what I did…I tried to put a little some-somethin’ on it.” Hey, that’s the best any of us can aim for before we shuffle off this mortal coil…puttin’ a little some-somethin’ on it.

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